Monday, March 23, 2009

Definitely Au Revoir, Not Adios

Farewell thoughts on Curt Schilling are tempered by the knowledge that retirement from baseball or no, Schilling's not going anywhere he might possibly be missed.

Some people are destined, no, impelled to spend life in the public sphere, and Curt is one of 'em. Boy, is he. He will doubtless reemerge as a color commentator, Internet impresario, political candidate, or some other vocation requiring that Schilling be in near-constant communication with his fellow men - all of them he can reach.

It's easy to tease Schilling, and I've done my fair share. His over-the-top personality, for which the term "galactic melodrama empress" doesn't come close to a full description, is ripe for poking fun. It also is why Schilling has not been a universally beloved teammate-even on teams who wouldn't have won World Championships without him. Baseball teams live in constant claustrophobic companionship. It's submarine duty with opportunities for extramarital sex thrown in. Imagine spending six months in a sub with Curt. Scary, huh?

And yet, the qualities that make it easy to ridicule Schilling are also why I was fond of him, and not incidentally, one of the main reasons he was one of history's top clutch pitchers. I wasn't Curt's teammate. I was there to write about him. Schilling was/is candid, loquacious, opinionated, and fond of a good argument. Speaking as a columnist, what's not to like?

Fans and sportswriters can't have it both ways. You can't bemoan the disappearance of the colorful athletes of yesteryear and the cliched nothings of the ESPN era, and then, when an athlete with a strong personality does appear, rip him for being colorful.

On a more cosmic level, Schilling is different from most people because he has the ability to become completely, passionately engaged with whatever comes his way. That quality can make others uneasy. It also means Schilling is getting more out of life than most of us.

On a pure baseball level, there can be no doubt that Schilling's need to be the center of attention was the part of his makeup that made him such a desirable starter in a big game. We laugh at the "bloody sock" drama of the 2004 postseason. But you know, a pitcher less stuck on himself, and less conscious of himself as the star of one of sport's history's great moments probably would have called in sick for Game Six of the ALCS.

Almost all great pitchers (Koufax is the one exception that comes to mind), have an element of playacting about them, the ham element to be precise (Pedro!!!). They had a role, a personality on the mound different from their everyday selves. This is strongly related to why they weren't everyday pitchers. Schilling has an heroic ideal of himself. Give him the ball, and he did his considerable damnedest to live up to his vision. Hard to consider that a bad thing.

No sooner does a player of accomplishment retire than the Hall of Fame arguments begin. A cursory glance at reveals the obvious fact that if there were a Postseason Baseball Hall of Fame, Schilling would be unanimously inducted as soon as eligible.

In the Hall of Fame of our space-time continuum, Schilling's stats, regular and post-season, put him in the gray area. He has a strong case, but his career numbers in some VERY important Hall metrics, like career wins and ERA (don't yell at me, figure filberts, I'm just telling you how the Hall electorate works), are a trifle short, due to the injury and weirdness-ridden endgame of Schilling's Phillies stint.

So when Schilling is eligible in 2013, there will be controversy, and a fierce controversy because both sides will have legitimate arguments. Fans will go berserk on Internet message boards and talk radio. Sportswriters will create long, passionate pieces in whatever medium is still employing them by then on both sides of the dispute. Curt Schilling will be one of baseball's most prominent topics during the winter months of the election period.

I'm sure Curt will just hate all the fuss.


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